How Ben-Gurion Did It: Is Everyone Listening?
Letter from the Middle East
By JAMES BENNET
PHOTO: Israelis watched in 1948 as the transport ship Altalena burned in Tel Aviv Harbor. It was bringing arms and militant fighters to reinforce Menachem Begin's underground forces, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered it shelled. (Jabotinsky Archives)
JERUSALEM, Aug. 12 — The official offered his prisoners a deal: he might let them go if they agreed to halt their "terrorist activities" and to use only political means to pursue their dream of statehood.
It was a proposal similar to the one Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, is making now to Hamas and other Palestinian factions that advocate terrorism. But this particular offer was made by a British officer to a group of Jews, at the time that the British uneasily governed Palestine, before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Among those who heard the proposal out, and rejected it, was a young extremist who went by a nom de guerre, Michael. Michael later escaped and returned to the underground, to a campaign of assassination, bombing and arms smuggling, with bank robbery thrown in to finance the effort.
"Nothing would be permitted to stand in the way of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel," Michael wrote 50 years later in his autobiography. "Nothing and No One."
By then, Michael was himself testimony to Israel's success at integrating militants into mainstream society. His violent life in the pre-state period had become the stuff of romantic national narrative and broad political appeal, and under a different name, Yitzhak Shamir, he had been one of Israel's longest-serving prime ministers, one who cracked down on Jewish terrorism in the West Bank.
In the view of many historians, it was in no small part the leadership of one man, David Ben-Gurion, that transformed Zionist militants into Israeli politicians and even peacemakers. "Ben-Gurion was a state-builder," said Shmuel Sandler, the Lainer Professsor of Democracy and Civility at Bar Ilan University. "State-building means that at one point you understand there can't be any more violence or illegal operations in your camp."
Times, terrorist tactics and international realities change; historical comparisons between the Zionist and Palestinian national movements can be easily strained.
Yet there are echoes in Mr. Abbas's oratory now of the message of Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. "On this land and for this people, there is only one authority, one law, and one democratic and national decision that applies to us all," Mr. Abbas said on assuming his post this spring. His meaning was that Hamas and other groups could no longer, in effect, conduct their own wars with Israel.
In 1944, a representative of Ben-Gurion delivered a similar message to a militant leader: "There must be one Jewish military force in Eretz Israel," that is, in the land of Israel. The militant leader, Menachem Begin, recalled the episode in his account of those years, "The Revolt."
Unlike Mr. Abbas, Hamas, which took responsibility for a suicide bombing in the West Bank today, officially rejects any two-state solution with Israel. Unlike the pragmatic Ben-Gurion, Begin in those days rejected any partition.
His printed declaration in 1944 of "war to the end" against the British appeared under a map of Palestine that extended to the border of Iraq, enclosing the image of a rifle by the words "Only Thus." Eventually, of course, Prime Minister Begin would give up the Sinai Peninsula.
Although Mr. Abbas has said Hamas must give up its illegal weapons, he has also repeatedly said he will not risk civil conflict to enforce his national vision, and the governing Palestinian Authority has yet to take action against terrorists.
It is something of an Israeli cliché that no Palestinian leader has ever had his "Altalena." The reference is to a fateful decision made by Ben-Gurion in June 1948, after Mr. Begin challenged his vision of a single military force by trying to import weapons and fighters from France aboard a ship, the Altalena.
Ben-Gurion called the effort "an attempt to destroy the army, an attempt to murder the state." He ordered the Altalena shelled in sight of Tel Aviv, with Begin aboard.
"Ben-Gurion exercised authority," said Gideon Shimoni, a historian of Zionism at Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry. "He drew the line."
Mr. Begin swallowed his anger and integrated his forces with the Israeli Army. As Professor Shimoni noted, Mr. Begin and others like him had never doubted that ultimately they would yield their arms and take part in an Israeli democracy. "They didn't have a concept that was nondemocratic in its essence," he said, drawing a possible distinction with Hamas.
Palestinian officials call the story of the Altalena a facile history lesson. They note that, at the time, Ben-Gurion already had at stake what no Palestinian leader has ever had: a state to defend against internal insurgency as well as external attack.
Further, unlike the groups of Mr. Shamir and Mr. Begin, Hamas does not operate only underground but maintains schools, health clinics and a steady, even celebrity presence on satellite television. As a result, it is broadly popular — far more popular than Mr. Abbas, though not Yasir Arafat.
But that analysis tends to slight the severity of Ben-Gurion's efforts over many years to marginalize the extremists, whom he referred to as "Jewish Nazis." Mr. Begin, whom Ben-Gurion compared to Hitler, wrote with great bitterness of what he saw as Ben-Gurion's collaboration with the British.
In April 1938, members of Etzel, the group Mr. Begin would later lead, opened fire on an Arab bus in stated retaliation for the killing days before of four Jews, including a child and two women, in a car. No one on the bus was hurt, but the British caught the three perpetrators and hanged one of them, Shlomo Ben-Yosef.
In his history of life under British rule in Palestine, "One Palestine, Complete," Tom Segev writes that Etzel supporters tried to "drag the Jewish community into a display of mourning" and to turn Mr. Ben-Yosef "into a martyr."
Ben Gurion resisted. "I am not shocked that a Jew was hanged in Palestine," he said. "I am ashamed of the deed that led to the hanging."